This weekend I finished reading a fascinating book, The Hungry Tide, by Indian born Amitav Ghosh. More accurately, I finished listening to The Hungry Tide, on CD. All 15 discs. Ghosh was raised in Bangladesh, eventually made his way elsewhere in the world and is now a visiting Professor at Harvard. He has homes in both India and Brooklyn. I found the book on this year's list of suggested (strongly suggested?) summer reading for Stanford University's incoming freshmen.
It's a powerhouse, an epic. It reminded me of the power of Josef Conrad's Heart of Darkness and how I felt after reading it: in Conrad's case, as if I had been given a view of Africa that would never leave me. In Ghosh's case, I feel I have experienced India in a way far different--and more deeply--than my two trips to India. In fact, it makes me look at my past experiences in India differently. Two years ago, I was hired to facilitate a 3 day discussion among world-experts on the wild tiger and the meeting took place in Khana, a tiger preserve about 5 hours from Delhi. There was much discussion among these scientists, biologists, politicians, of the need to protect wild tigers and their habitat from the people living in remote villages that abut tiger preserves. The group I was facilitating was focused on the plight of the tiger. But Ghosh made me see the complexity of the problem from the point of view of the villagers.
But Ghosh's book goes well beyond India and the challenges of preserving its wild tiger population. The story is set in India's famous Sundarban archipelago, referred to as the "ragged fringe of India's sari." We become familiar with the microenvironments of the islands, of the extreme weather, including cyclones, that frequent its people, of the range of biology there, especially the once plentiful Inawaddy dolphin, the much feared wild tiger, not to mention crocodiles and other man-eaters. And there are the tides as well, brutal in their ability to take lives of the unway.
Revolution, the treatment by Bangladeshi squatters by the Indian government, the sweep of Sundarban history: all are set forth, touching on their broader, indeed global ramifications. A great story, told compellingly in unsentimental but gripping fashion.
I was intrigued by the role conversation plays in the book. For one thing, a myriad of languages are spoken by people in India, and that is true of the Sundarbans as well. Dramatically different religions are practiced and in the Sundarbans, those religions have become intermingled in ways that impact behavior in fascinating ways. A deep bond is built between Piya, an Indian-American woman who is a marine biologist with an interest in the dolphin, and Fokir, the illiterate fisherman she befriends and whose knowledge of the dolphin's behavior expands her knowledge base while and, potentially, inspires her to pursue work that could have major impact on the fate of the dolphin globally. Though they cannot understand a word each other speaks, they communicate at a level that is convincing in its depth.
Another important character, is Kanai, a successful Delhi businessman who has made a career of interpreting for important dignitaries and corporate executive. His involvement in the tale is representative of the challenge faced by aspiring Indians who as they reach success, often leave behind rich history and cultural influences that they choose to forget but which nonetheless inform their behavior in significant ways, raising ethical and culturally ambiguous issues in the process. At one point, Kanai talks of the role of the interpreter in significant conversations, noting that at times the interpreters becomes one with the person whose words he is mouthing, losing himself in the conversation.
The audio book is narrated by Firdous Bamji, an American-Indian and popular film and television actor in America and the UK. He plays all the roles in the book and his use of voice and modulation and accent are amazing in portraying each of the characters convincingly.
This book stays at work in the brain, I'm finding. I've been thinking, for example, of what it would be like to be trying to communicate with someone who could not understand a word of what I am saying. What other tools would I be able to bring to the "conversation" besides hand gestures? Does your company, for example, make an effort to understand customers who literally speak another language? How effective are the efforts to do that?
Do you find yourself in the role of interpreter in your work? Are you the one who can explain to people what others in the company are saying? How do you feel about that role and how could you be more effective at it?